Can Jack Eichel become the first American ‘generational’ hockey talent?

44 Comments

The word “generational” has been thrown around a lot this year in the hockey world.

Both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have had their names attached to the label.

As in, these are generational talents we’re talking about here.

As in, it’s no coincidence that tanking became a hot topic in 2014-15.

McDavid — like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, and most of the other greatest hockey players of all time — is Canadian.

Eichel is American.

There has never been a generational hockey talent that was born and raised in the United States.

Oh, there have been some great American hockey players. Hall of Famers like Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Joe Mullen, Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine. Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is on track for induction.

But none were, or are, head and shoulders above the rest. Case in point, an American-born, American-bred player has never won the Hart Trophy, an award Gretzky received nine times.

Can Eichel become the first?

The fact people are even asking such questions is proof of the hype, which is perhaps unfair to an 18-year-old. While nobody’s demanding that Eichel do for the NHL what Michael Jordan did for the NBA or Tiger Woods for golf, it’s certainly been said before that, for hockey to really thrive in the United States, there needs to be an American Gretzky.

By the way, “American Gretzky” is what Brian Lawton’s agent once predicted his client would become.

Lawton, the first U.S.-born player to be drafted first overall, did not become American Gretzky. Not even close.

When asked in April how he handles the weight of expectations, Eichel told PHT: “To be honest, I try to block out everyone else’s opinions.”

And while he admits that’s easier said than done in the age of social media, he knows it’s part of the deal for today’s star athletes.

“You never know what somebody’s opinion’s going to be, whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s so many people in the world whose opinions I do care for, but there’s more that I don’t care for. I’m worried what the people close to me think of me, and what my teammates think of me.”

Besides, he puts enough pressure on himself. He doesn’t need Twitter’s help.

“I think the one guy that needs to put less pressure on himself is probably myself,” he said. “I’m always pushing myself to get better. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself, and I think sometimes it’s too much.”

Eichel conceded that may have been the case at this year’s World Juniors, where he had just one goal and three assists for an American squad that lost in the quarterfinals. In stark contrast, McDavid had three goals and eight assists for gold medal-winning Canada.

“It’s a pressure situation up there,” Eichel said of the tournament that was co-hosted by Toronto and Montreal. “There was a lot going on at that time, and I really wanted to help our team be successful. It was a good experience for me, going up there and dealing with the things that I dealt with. I definitely learned a lot from it.”

The reviews of his game were far better at the World Championships, where he helped the Americans to a surprising bronze medal. Eichel finished with two goals and five assists in 10 games, playing with and against top professionals.

Friday in Florida, Eichel will be selected second overall by the Buffalo Sabres, right after McDavid goes first to the Edmonton Oilers.

Maybe Eichel will go on to become the greatest American hockey player of all time.

Maybe he’ll be a bust.

But Friday is where his NHL story will officially start, with great expectations.

Jay Bouwmeester will not play again for Blues this season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jay Bouwmeester met with the media on Wednesday for the first time since suffering a cardiac episode during a Feb. 11 game in Anaheim.

The defenseman, who began the press conference by thanking the training staffs of the Blues and Ducks, will not play again this season, according to general manager Doug Armstrong. While a comeback this season is out of reach, Bouwmeester has not closed the door on his future.

“There’s been a lot going on,” he said. “I think that’s something I’m going to definitely have to evaluate, but to say I’ve done that, I wouldn’t say fully yet. There’s decisions I’m going to have to make. That’ll come later.”

“We talked about longer term things that may or may not happen and both feel that it’s February,” added Armstrong. “You don’t have to make long term decisions at this point. He’s going to take time and again back in with his family and get around the team and he’ll address those things as the summer progresses.”

Bouwmeester, who will turn 37 in September, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He was revived with defibrillator and quickly taken from Honda Center to a local hospital. He later had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator procedure to restore the normal rhythm of his heart.

“I’m at the point now where I feel pretty good,” Bouwmeester said. “That’s kind of the weird thing about this is you go from something that happened totally out of the blue and unexpected to being in the hospital for a couple of days and then now there’s some restrictions as to what I can do.”

The Blues-Ducks game was postponed and rescheduled for March 11.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
Getty Images
Leave a comment

A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Laviolette to coach Team USA at world hockey championships

Leave a comment

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Peter Laviolette is returning to the bench after being selected as the coach of the United States men’s national team competing at the world hockey championships in May.

The move was announced by USA Hockey on Wednesday, and comes seven weeks after Laviolette was fired by the Nashville Predators.

Laviolette ranks 16th in NHL wins with 637 covering four teams over 18 seasons, including the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. He also coached the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers.

From Massachusetts, the 55-year-old Laviolette also has extensive experience representing the U.S. as a coach and player on the international stage.

The tournament being held in Switzerland will mark the fourth time Laviolette has coached the U.S. at the world championships, and first since 2014, when the Americans lost to Czech Republic in the quarterfinals in Belarus. He was also U.S. coach in 2004, when the team won a bronze medal, and ’05.

Laviolette also coached the national team to an eighth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics.

As a player, Laviolette was a two-time Olympian in representing the U.S. in 1988 and 1994, when he served as team captain.

”Peter is a terrific coach and someone who has had success wherever he’s been,” said USA Hockey’s John Vanbiesbrouck. ”We’re thrilled to have him back as head coach of our men’s national team.”

Team USA’s roster will begin being stocked once the NHL’s regular season concludes during the first weekend in April. The Americans have been limited to winning just six bronze medals since a silver-medal finish in 1950.

The world championships are scheduled to run from May 8 to 24.

Canadiens’ Mete out for season with broken foot

Leave a comment

MONTREAL (AP) — Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot.

Mete suffered the injury during the game in Detroit on Feb. 18.

The 21-year-old Mete had four goals and 11 assists in 51 games this season. He has four goals and 27 assists in 171 games with Montreal.

Mete was a fourth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2016.